St. Thomas – Hurricane Irma, a visit with family I will never forget

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If you’ve been to St. Thomas you would know that it is truly America’s paradise. Turquoise clear blue water, white sands, so many mango and coconut trees, so much green foliage it is just beautiful. I fortunately can visit there any time because my husband’s parents and family live there.  He grew up with such a beautiful landscape of the island they call “The Rock”.  So many great beaches to enjoy the pristine waters and great things to see and do on the island.  That was until Irma…Now, a lot of that beauty is gone…at least until they rebuild and Mother Nature restores all the foliage and the sea.

Preparation…At my in-laws, I guess there was no preparation outside of putting water in gallon jugs.  It was a sure bet that we would lose power and lose it for an extended period of time.  My husband and his family kept saying “we were here for Hugo and Marilyn, it’s part of Island life”.  I decided to look up Hurricane Hugo and Marilyn…both a Category 3, ~115mph…Irma was a Category 5, ~175mph.  There were already reports that Irma has sustained winds of 185 mph.  Hurricane’s may be part of Island life but this one could bring havoc like never before…so…thinking to myself, don’t we need to do a bit more than put water in gallon jugs? Oh, the other thing Daddy did was fill industrial buckets of water.  We had one in the bathtub to bathe from and one to use to flush the toilet.

A good friend and neighbor, Ralph, lives next door and has renters in his property.  He stopped and got boards, screws, etc. and contacted folks to come help him board up windows.  My husband helped and I assisted as I could.  Our cousin lived in one of the units in Ralph’s property…definitely wanted to make sure she was safe.

The Storm approaching…This storm was going to hit during the day.  We were all awake by around 6am ET to strong winds blowing.  Around 6:30 we heard a power transformer blow, power was out and much sooner than any of us anticipated.  Shortly thereafter, it came back on but, only until another transformer blew about 7:40am ET…at that point power was done.

My husband and I sat on the bed in his room reading and watching the storm come in through the windows surrounding the room.  At that point, it was still light outside. The winds were coming directly down the street and directly toward the corner of the house where we sat. His Mom showed us a tree across the street that was sure to fall so we kept our eyes on it.  We would put our heads down to read, hear a strong wind, see all of the trees swaying from side to side then look up then put our heads down again.  At one point, we got up and looked through the windows around the house and took some pics of Irma’s current state.  I couldn’t believe the swaying of the coconut trees from side to side.  My husband said they won’t break.  Boy, did they sway from side to side at a 45-degree angle…crazy.  We continuously watched two papaya trees across the road outside his window that had a few papayas on each tree.  They held on for most of the storm.  We both took a few videos out the back of the house of the coconut and mango trees swaying during the early parts of the storm.  At this point…it was still before 12 noon.

I took a video of an Iguana holding on for dear life to a tree. It was unbelievable…you often hear that animals know if bad weather/storms are coming and they get the hell out of dodge.  Clearly this iguana was a risk taker.

The wrath of Irma begins…At 2:10pm ET I posted on Facebook “2:10, no internet, please pray”.  At that time, I heard the sound of a freight train, the sound always referenced during a bad tornado which I was familiar with growing up in Ohio.  I mentioned it to my husband but he probably didn’t pay it much mind. We should have all been heading to the most center of the house. That sound, the sudden darkness in the middle of the day and the crazy quick extreme shift of the winds coming.  My post never posted and now that I know the wrath that Irma had in her and was being broadcast on the news I’m glad it didn’t.  I already had so many friends, family and coworkers worried I didn’t want to make it worse.  I had no idea of the media coverage because we had no power and/or internet/cell service.  Apparently, Irma was already breaking records. My husband and I continued to look through the windows in amazement…bad idea.  We just left his room from looking through a window through the back of his room, shut the door and BANG, SHATTER, CRASH and the wind and rain got louder.  “What was that?” We just left the room, heard the noise, rushed back and saw a sharp-edged piece of wood came flying through his bedroom window about chest level where we were just standing.  OMG, if we were still standing there, one of us could have been seriously injured and/or probably could have been killed. WTH! That shit was just random…nothing else seriously damaging occurred and/or did fortunately to his parents’ house during Irma.  At that point I was scared and my incident response skills kicked in…” everything to the middle of the house, move this stuff out of this room to the living room, after you fix the window everyone needs to sit in the bathroom”.  Yea…not so much…the sounds of large tree stumps and branches snapping was heard on a regular basis.  That tree across the street that Momma T knew was going to fall, we watched it break limb by limb and fall. The mango trees were next…

Soon after the window break water was coming in under the galvanized steel roof and through the windows on the back side of the house.  The wind, rain and pressure of the storm was unreal.  We were constantly putting down towels and linens, wringing them out and putting them back down.  This went on for hours.  Finally, around 5pm ET, the worst of Irma had started to pass.

The aftermath…Waking up the morning after, everyone was out around 6am ET walking and looking around at the destruction Irma left behind.  Just looking from the veranda and the surrounding areas it was unbelievable.  So many windows blown out and roofs gone from people’s homes all around us.  We could see homes we couldn’t see before because trees that were previously full of foliage now had none.  We could even see in town which was crazy.  We could see some of the air conditioning units on top Kmart, some were torn-up on the off the roof and others were on the ground.

After walking around upstairs at the house, we wanted to take a walk up the street. Momma T would not let me go outside without sneakers on…since I was there on vacation, I had nothing but open toed shoes.  Luckily, we wear close to the same shoe size so I wore a pair of her sneakers.  There was galvanized steel, glass, power lines, all types of debris from houses, cars and stuff all over the road.  As we walked down the street, there were uprooted coconut trees, split power poles, cars damaged from things being blown through the windows or fallen items, more roofs gone and people walking around that looked like they have lost everything. We checked on a couple neighbors along the way that fortunately the ones we knew, just got a lot of water in their home and some roof damage like us.

Fortunately, Mom’s has a gas stove so she could cook.  She had a smoker out back and she smoked pork and turkey…it was delish!  For breakfast one day I ate corned beef out of the can…there’s a first time for everything. We transferred items from the freezer over to Ralph’s who had a generator to keep the conch frozen…he’s the main supplier of conch for the island. As far as eating and having plenty of spirits, we were good…now, let the bathing from buckets begin!

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Cousin works for Port Authority at the airport and lives next door.  We drove with her to the airport so she could pick up a company vehicle.  This was the only way we could get around the island outside of the curfew.  People could only be on the streets from 12noon to 6pm.  That drive was even more telling of Irma.  Driving along the water front on the way to the airport where the sea was normally so clear and still and looked like glass, it now was murky brown and there was a ton of seaweed up on the shore. The large planters with palm trees were pushed to the middle of the road.  More power lines down, roofs gone and damage to houses and resorts up on the hillsides.  She showed us pics inside the airport…it was trashed.  The feeling of being stranded started to begin…

The next day we went with Cousin to find her Sister.  She lived up in the country as did Mom’s cousin, both we have been unable to reach.  Cell service finally returned for us but was not available throughout the island.  The country was even more devastating to see.  Gas stations, power lines, roofs, buildings and churches just torn apart.  When we reached our other cousin’s, she was sitting on her back porch and safe.  Looking over the hill there was a building were the complete back side of the apartments were blown out.  I heard that is where ~2-3 of the deaths occurred…apparently, the individuals were blown out of their place along with the wall and died.  This all occurred in the area of Tutu. Up on the hill you could see the complete destruction of all of the solar panels…it was just unreal.  Down one road it appeared as if an angry tornado tore down the street and split every power pole in its path.  It was that way up several side roads that were now inaccessible.

Luckily there were a few locals that were minimally impacted that opened up their business for some resources.   A gas station up the road was selling gas, the local grocery store was open with a ridiculous line and one of the best bakeries on the island was selling 2 loaves of butter bread per person.  We loaded up the car and got 2 loaves a person and Cousin got more for her staff at the airport.

Trying to get back home was frustrating to say the least.  Every time we saw an available flight, we’d try to book it was sold out.  We’d see another available fight, we booked it and it would be canceled.  Over and over this occurred on both American and Delta flights.  Being there and not being able to help those in need and at the same time wanting to get back home was a mind struggle.  The sights in person are so devastating and have a much different effect on an individual versus seeing on the television.  It’s really hard to explain and wrap my head around it all.  As much as my husband mentions how this is part of Island life and how people have life too good in the states…I now get it…totally different perspective that one can only have with this type of experience.

Sunday, a day after our original flight home and 4 days after Irma. Momma T hears on the radio for individuals there visiting, staying at rental properties and or relatives trying to get home to call St. Thomas tourism or visit at the Havensight location between 1-4.  They were making arrangements for a cruise ship to come in Monday or Tuesday and said to Miami, Florida.  It was ~3pm, I called and gave our information to get us on the list.  We had to listen to the radio and/or check a website to find out when it was arriving and when we can board the ship.  Fortunately, one of the tenants’ downstairs worked at the port and had the ship schedule so we could find out for sure when to get on the ship.

A few hours later, husband got a text from Cousin about a Delta charter coming in on Monday that we may be able to get on.  He sent our information to get to the Delta contact coordinating the effort.  The Delta agent came back and said the flight was only taking 150 people and had 2 seats left.  Again, we are not getting our hopes up…for all we knew there was another 2 individuals trying to get on that same flight and we would miss this one too.  My husband sent our information over to try and get us those last 2 seats.  The Delta contact said she’d give our information to the Commissioner.  The flight would get us to Detroit and we would need to figure it out from there. Worse case, we could stay with my brother who lives outside of Detroit and we could fly home Tuesday.  We packed that night as if we were leaving in the morning.  The flight was supposed to leave at 9:45am and we were to arrive at 7am.  We left for the airport at 6am with Cousin. No one was there, was this a complete fail? Long story short, the plane wasn’t getting in until 11am, the Delta agent had us on the list and processed our ticket. Once again, until the ticket was in hand, I was not getting very excited. But, we got on the flight, barely made the connecting flight to Charlotte and finally made it home just before midnight.

Now what? I always wanted a place by the sea and after this experience I am a bit hesitant. As long as we are prepared, understand that hurricanes have potentially devastating outcomes and are a part of island life perhaps I can deal.  But can a person ever be ok knowing the impact hurricanes have on individual lives, environment and the economy of the islands?

I am making progress on having the mindset where I am looking forward to the rebuilding and recovery of St. Thomas and the rest of the islands.  However, exactly 2 weeks after Irma, Hurricane Maria impacted St. Croix and Puerto Rico very badly.  They say it may be 4-6 months until Puerto Rico has power.  Prior to the impact on the Leeward Islands, Maria’s eye stormed and ravaged Dominica, where my husband’s family is originally from.  A lot of people are not farmiliar with Dominica which is known as the nature island.

There will always be hurricanes and other natural disasters.  Can and we ever be prepared enough for the unknowns they bring?  Mother Nature’s wrath is apparent this hurricane season…which is truly a message of the state of our climate today.

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